July 20, 2015

Students Travel to Southern Africa to Learn about Religion, Gender and the Region's AIDS Epidemic

For two weeks in May, 10 students along with Assistant Professor of Psychology Clare Metha traveled with Assistant Professor of Theology + Religious Studies Laurie Johnston to southern Africa for Johnston’s service-learning and travel course “Southern Africa: Religion, Gender and AIDS.”

For two weeks in May, 10 students (eight from Emmanuel and two from neighboring Colleges of the Fenway schools), along with Assistant Professor of Psychology Clare Metha traveled with Assistant Professor of Theology + Religious Studies Laurie Johnston to southern Africa for Johnston's service-learning and travel course "Southern Africa: Religion, Gender and AIDS."

During the regular semester, this course examined the interplay between religious, culture and gender as they relate to HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region, with a focus on how religious communities are both an obstacle and a resource in combating the epidemic and the factors contributing to it.

In a post-semester reflection paper, psychology major Angelina Rogers '17 expressed that she was determined in enroll in the course and participate in the trip after hearing about it during her Emmanuel Orientation. Rogers described the semester-long class as "intense" but also a fulfilling educational experience.

"With the people in the class, we were able to participate in real and emotional conversations [about things] that had happened in South African history and in the present of our home, America," Rogers wrote. "We discussed controversial topics from the HIV/AIDS epidemic to human rights around the globe. I can honestly say that class pushed me to places of understanding and learning that I haven't been pushed before. At 1:15 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday, I left that class feeling more conflicted than the previous class, and [it] wasn't because I didn't understand. It was because I now understood immensely."

During the travel portion, which took place this year from May 14th-May 29th, the group first traveled to Mbabane in Swaziland - a country that has one of the highest infection rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, with a total of 29 percent of the adult population infected with the HIV virus and consequently, a high percentage of orphaned children.

Partnering with the Ubuntu Institute's Exposure Exchange Programme, students spent five days serving with Swaziland's El Shaddai Ministries' Children's Home. There, students assisted with repair and painting projects, building and setting up the orphanage's library and planting, as well as spending time getting to know and playing games with some of the home's 80+ residents. Margie Brewer, a staff member at El Shaddai, sent a message to Emmanuel's Office of International Programs following the group's return, expressing her gratitude for the work Emmanuel students did.

"As a team, they accomplished very much in only five days," Brewer wrote. "We now have a wonderful vegetable garden, beautiful mural with the children's handprints, the alphabet painted on bedroom walls, an organised library with many ag- appropriate books, and several items of clothing that were mended.

"The team showed genuine care and patience with all the little ones. Each of the children and staff were given individual, thoughtful gift bags which made them feel very special. The relationships formed between the team and the children are remarkable and will have positive lasting effects."

While in Swaziland, the group was also able to visit the Swaziland National Museum, King Sobhuza II Memorial Park and Swazi Cultural Village in the Mantenga Nature Reserve.

After departing Swaziland, students and staff traveled to Johannesburg. There, students spent a morning with Sonke Gender Justice, an organization that works across Africa to strengthen government, civil society and citizen capacity to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS.

During this discussion, Rogers learned that unless the unbalanced gender roles change through both a shift in community norms and government policy and law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic will continue to spread through underrepresented populations.

"The extreme poverty in Swaziland makes HIV/AIDS difficult to prevent and to provide help for due to the limitation of resources and money," Rogers wrote. "As much as I appreciate the people of Swaziland keeping their [cultural] traditions strong, many of these aid to the epidemic. Women need to feel supported and that they have the right to say no...During our conference with Sonke Institute, they talked about how their company isn't based on women empowerment but on getting males involved in empowering women. I really appreciated this approach because women need the support more than ever to take a stand for their rights and against this deadly disease."

The group was also able to visit the urban area of Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum, Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, the Apartheid Museum and an animal sanctuary, as well as meet with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Johannesburg.

For more information on travel courses, please contact the Office of International Programs.

Southern Africa: Religion, Gender and AIDS :: 2015

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